“The anachronistic grounded narrative ultimately provides a fun introduction to the specificity of Japanese bathing culture”.
We find ourselves in ancient Rome at the time of emperor Hadrian (Masachika Ichimura) . After failing to deliver innovative ideas and fashionable bathhouse designs, Lucius (Hiroshi Abe), a Roman bathhouse architect loses his job. To cheer him up, his friend takes him to a public bathhouse. Once there, Lucius starts thinking about how he can realize his own bathhouse philosophy – a philosophy that does not thrive on decadence – in an innovative way. While thinking hard, he suddenly slips through time and resurfaces in a modern-day public bath house in Japan. The encounter with the Japanese bathing culture and with the ‘flat-faced clan”, inspires Lucius, upon his return to ancient Rome, to reinvent his bathing philosophy in a fashionable way. Not long after his Japanese infused bathhouse designs gets him quite a name, emperor Hadrian, who aims to build a great Thermae as to gain support of his citizens, asks for his services. In modern-day Japan, Lucius’s various visits attract the attention of the aspiring young manga artist Mami (Aya Ueto), who is eagerly looking for a hero for her manga.
It’s very clear from the structure of the narrative that it’s based on a manga. Even though it isn’t presented as such, the episodic nature of the narrative is apparent. For the most part, this structure is characterizes by a lack of any meaningful narrative progression. Nevertheless the side stories – more specific the side story concerning Mami, provide the necessary thread that sows the ‘episodes’ together and the necessary elements to put the final plot into play. Nevertheless the axis that forms the entire narrative remains the same and is as follows: for every problem, a bath will provide the solution. One can’t help but wonder if this isn’t a fundamental truth that Japanese society and Thermae Romae has us to teach (note 1).
‘Non-Japanese’ viewers will view this movie differently than ‘Japanese’ viewers, but that doesn’t affect the entertainment that one can derives from the narrative. The position (non-Japanese or Japanese) one has in relation to the narrative, doesn’t change the effectiveness of the humour, it nevertheless changes the perspective by which the humour becomes effective. While the Japanese viewer – sharing the symbolic coordinates of the flat-faced clan – is more inclined to view Lucius’ exploration of Japanese bathing culture from the perspective of the Japanese symbolic reality of bathing, the non-Japanese viewer – not sharing the symbolic coordinates of the flat-faced clan – is more inclined to align himself with Lucius, as he is, in a way, as unknowledgeable of the specific reality of Japanese bathing culture. In this way the anachronistic grounded narrative provides the non-Japanese viewer a fun introduction to the specificity of Japanese bathing culture.
Cinematography and style
Thermea Romae doesn’t boast an extraordinary cinematography, nevertheless two aspects concerning camera use stand out. The first aspect is how the Roman setting – in the beginning of the narrative – is brought almost solely to life peripherally. In other words: it’s in the periphery of the cinematographic focus on Lucius, the periphery of the camera following him on his walks through Rome, that the viewer is introduced to a faithful recreation of the bustling daily Roman life and its bathing culture. Although Lucius may appear to be somewhat anachronistic because of his distinct Japanese look, the cinematography succeeds in grounding him in a believable Roman atmosphere.
The second aspect is the effective framing of the facial expressions of Lucius – Hiroshi Abe knows how to look surprised, which produces much of the humour. This ‘facial’ framing is further enforced by the staging of Lucius’ thinking. This is, given the purpose of the movie to entertain, not to underline subjectivity (like in Boys on the run! and Minna! Esper Dayo) but just to give reality to Lucius’ thoughts and dilemma’s, while he’s exploring the contemporary Japan – Lucius doesn’t understand the flat-faced clan, and its bathhouse culture. It’s enjoyable to see how Lucius gives meaning to this newfound Japanese reality and how he integrates this reality in his preexisting Roman “subjective reality”. It’s this interpreting that forms the mainspring of humour and sillyness in the narrative.
Acting resembles comical anime, without feeling out of place – the wife of Lucius is the epitome of this kind of acting. By way of using zoom-ins and close ups – these are also used for the facial framing we mentioned before, empowers this more ‘anime’ styled acting. Hiroshi Abe’s facial expressions are always enjoyable and Aya Ueto freshens the narrative with her charismatic and charming presence – and damn, her enjoying her Japanese bath while the credits roll by is a sight to see. In the end, the acting and the cinematography blend together nicely, staging a narrative that’s conscious of its own anachronistic absurdness. The fact that every transition from Rome to Japan is supported by an opera singer and the movie uses solely Italian renaissance music further underlines the fact that the movie is made in full consciousness of the absurdness of its premises.
Thermae Romae is not a fabulous cinematographic product by any means, but it nevertheless proves to be an enjoyable movie. For non-Japanese viewers it will ultimately serve as an introduction into Japanese bathing culture. So if you’re interested in a somewhat silly and absurd introduction into Japanese bathing culture, this movie proves to be a worthy start. But even for those already acquainted with Japanese bathing culture, the movie provides enough fun to be worth your time.
And one last recommendation: watch the credits. If the joy that Mami (Aya Ueto) extracts from bathing, doesn’t give birth to the intention to visit a Japanese bathhouse yourself, nothing will.
Note 1: It’s not so much a fundamental truth, but it does point us to what is considered in Japan to be important to the functioning of social relations. In this respect the dorama nobunaga no chef points to another aspect important in social relations, dining/food. Nobunaga no chef’s axis is thus likewise: for every problem, food will provide the solution.